Physician anesthesiologist at Stanford at Associated Anesthesiologists Medical Group
Richard Novak, MD is a Stanford physician board certified in anesthesiology and internal medicine.Dr. Novak is an Adjunct Clinical Professor in the Department of Anesthesiology, Perioperative and Pain Medicine at Stanford University, the Medical Director at Waverley Surgery Center in Palo Alto, California, and a member of the Associated Anesthesiologists Medical Group in Palo Alto, California.

You’re an attending anesthesiologist. You enter another colleague’s operating room to give him a bathroom break during his 6-hour plastic surgery case, and you find him tapping on an iPad and reading in the operating room. What do you do?

Discussion:  Is it OK for the anesthesiologist to be reading in the operating room? Is it OK for him to be referencing the Internet? Answering email? Sending text messages on his smartphone? Or should that anesthesiologist be staring transfixed at the monitor screen for hour after hour, maintaining flawless vigilance?

In the Anesthesia Patient Safety Foundation Newsletter Summer 1995 edition, Dr. Matthew Weinger discussed the issue of reading in the operating room. He emphasized that there were no scientific data on the impact of reading on anesthesia provider vigilance or task performance. He cited data that anesthesiologists are ‘idle’ during 40% of routine cases. He asserted that “anesthesia providers read during these idle periods to prevent boredom, and that boredom was a problem of information underload, insufficient work challenge, and under-stimulation…Adding tasks to a monotonous job may decrease boredom and dividing attention among several tasks (time-sharing) may, in some circumstances, actually improve monitoring performance.” Weinger concluded that, “in the absence of controlled studies on the effect of reading in the operating room on anesthesia vigilance and task performance, no definitive or generalizable recommendations can be made. The decision must remain a personal one based on recognition of one’s capabilities and limitations. From a broader perspective, the anesthesia task including associated equipment must be optimized to minimize boredom and yet not be so continuously busy as to be stressful.”

In the Anesthesia Patient Safety Foundation Newsletter, Fall 2004 edition, Dr. Terri Monk opined that reading in the OR seriously compromised patient safety. She was opposed to reading for the following reasons:

  1. Reading diverts one’s attention from the patient.
  2. The patient is paying for the anesthesiologist’s undivided attention, and most well-informed patients want to know if the anesthesiologist plans to turn over a portion of their anesthesia care to a nurse or resident. If we are obliged to honestly answer that concern, then, shouldn’t we also be obliged to inform the patient that we plan to read during a portion of the anesthetic?
  3. Reading is medico-legally dangerous. Dr. Monk wrote, “Any plaintiff’s attorney would love to have a case in which the circulating nurse would testify, ‘Dr. Giesecke was reading when the cardiac arrest occurred. Yep, he was reading the Wall Street Journal. You know he has a lot of valuable stocks that he must keep track of.’ It is possible that if anesthesiologists informed their malpractice carriers that they routinely read during cases, the companies might raise premiums or cancel malpractice coverage.”
  4. The practice of reading in the OR projects a negative public image. Nurses, technicians, and surgeons may think the anesthesiologist is less professional.

A 2009 study looked at 172 selected general anesthetic cases in an academic medical center. Vigilance was assessed by the response time to a randomly illuminated alarm light. Reading was observed in 35% of cases. In the 60 cases that involved reading, providers read during 25  +/- 3% of maintenance time but not during induction or emergence. Vigilance to the alarm light was no different between readers and non-readers.

Miller’s Anesthesia (7th Edition, 2009, chapter 6) states, “Although it is indisputable that reading can distract attention from patient care, there are no data at present to determine the degree to which reading does distract attention, especially if the practice is confined to low-workload portions of a case. Furthermore, many anesthetists pointed out that reading as a distraction is not necessarily any different from many other kinds of activities not related to patient care that are routinely accepted, such as idle conversation among personnel.”

A 2012 study concluded there were no data concerning the effects of the use of laptops and smartphones in the operating theatre on anesthetist performance, and that these devices were now in frequent use. They discussed the use of laptops and smartphones in regards to the two pertinent issues of vigilance and multitasking. There were data that in some circumstances the addition of a secondary task (i.e. using a laptop or smartphone) during periods of low stimulation can improve vigilance and overall task performance, but the workload and the nature of the secondary task were critical. The authors made the following points regarding the nature of anesthesia work and the factors that affect performance in anesthesia:

  1. Anesthesia involves multi-tasking and the maintenance of situational awareness. Studies have shown that attending to a range of tasks simultaneously is a key characteristic of anesthetic practice, and that anesthetists are superior to non-anesthetists in performing additional tasks while monitoring patients.
  2. Anesthetists typically only glance at monitors. Covert observations of anesthetists in British Columbia revealed subjects spent less than 5% of their time observing the monitoring display. This was made up of brief glances (1.5 to 2 seconds duration) occurring 15 – 20 times during each 10-minute segment of time.
  3.    Anesthetic work is reduced during prolonged maintenance, potentially resulting in boredom and/or secondary activities being undertaken. The maintenance phase in some anesthetics (typically cases of longer duration, lower complexity and where the patient is stable) may be a time of low workload and infrequent task demands. In a study of 105 anesthesia clinicians, half reported being bored infrequently, but 90% admitted to occasional episodes of extreme boredom. Boredom can result in severely decreased vigilance if the anesthetist is suffering from sleep deprivation.
  4.    The authors concluded there was no evidence to support a blanket prohibition on the use of smartphones and laptops in the operating theatre, and there was good reason to avoid edicts that are not supported by solid evidence. They stated, “There is no doubt that reading or computer usage gives the appearance of being less attentive, even if there are no measurable effects on routine care…Computer and phone tasks that also require immediate responses appear to provide a greater risk than reading (whether from a book or screen). While boredom may be cognitively unpleasant, there is no evidence of anesthetist boredom (in the absence of sleep) harming patients.”

I recently attended the American Society of Anesthesiologists national convention in San Francisco. At the conclusion of the meeting, the ASA emailed me a full text edition of the Refresher Course lectures as an email attachment, in a format designed to be downloaded onto a computer. Like myself, more than 10,000 anesthesiologist attendees of the ASA meeting will now have access to the Refresher Course curriculum on their laptops or iPads. Will some of them read these Refresher Courses during the stable maintenance phases of anesthetics in their operating rooms? Perhaps.

Returning to the Clinical Case for Discussion above, what will you do about your colleague you discovered using his iPad in the operating room? My guess is, based on what has been published in the anesthesia literature, you’ll give him the bathroom break as intended, and say nothing about his use of the iPad in the operating room.



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Published in September 2017:  The second edition of THE DOCTOR AND MR. DYLAN, Dr. Novak’s debut novel, a medical-legal mystery which blends the science and practice of anesthesiology with unforgettable characters, a page-turning plot, and the legacy of Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan.


In this debut thriller, tragedies strike an anesthesiologist as he tries to start a new life with his son.

Dr. Nico Antone, an anesthesiologist at Stanford University, is married to Alexandra, a high-powered real estate agent obsessed with money. Their son, Johnny, an 11th-grader with immense potential, struggles to get the grades he’ll need to attend an Ivy League college. After a screaming match with Alexandra, Nico moves himself and Johnny from Palo Alto, California, to his frozen childhood home of Hibbing, Minnesota. The move should help Johnny improve his grades and thus seem more attractive to universities, but Nico loves the freedom from his wife, too. Hibbing also happens to be the hometown of music icon Bob Dylan. Joining the hospital staff, Nico runs afoul of a grouchy nurse anesthetist calling himself Bobby Dylan, who plays Dylan songs twice a week in a bar called Heaven’s Door. As Nico and Johnny settle in, their lives turn around; they even start dating the gorgeous mother/daughter pair of Lena and Echo Johnson. However, when Johnny accidentally impregnates Echo, the lives of the Hibbing transplants start to implode. In true page-turner fashion, first-time novelist Novak gets started by killing soulless Alexandra, which accelerates the downfall of his underdog protagonist now accused of murder. Dialogue is pitch-perfect, and the insults hurled between Nico and his wife are as hilarious as they are hurtful: “Are you my husband, Nico? Or my dependent?” The author’s medical expertise proves central to the plot, and there are a few grisly moments, as when “dark blood percolated” from a patient’s nostrils “like coffee grounds.” Bob Dylan details add quirkiness to what might otherwise be a chilly revenge tale; we’re told, for instance, that Dylan taught “every singer with a less-than-perfect voice…how to sneer and twist off syllables.” Courtroom scenes toward the end crackle with energy, though one scene involving a snowmobile ties up a certain plot thread too neatly. By the end, Nico has rolled with a great many punches.

Nuanced characterization and crafty details help this debut soar.

Click on the image below to reach the Amazon link to The Doctor and Mr. Dylan:


Learn more about Rick Novak’s fiction writing at by clicking on the picture below: